'Caring might be putting it too strongly': Expats sound off on the Czech presidential election

With the second round looming, we asked non-citizens (who aren't eligible to vote for president) to comment on the election in Czechia.

 William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 18.01.2023 14:39:00 (updated on 18.01.2023) Reading time: 5 minutes

The first round of Czech presidential elections took place last weekend, with retired NATO general Petr Pavel and former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš making it through to a second-round run-off to be held on Jan. 27 and 28. Barely anything separated the pair, with both receiving about 35 percent of the popular vote.

Who do you think will win the 2023 presidential election?

Petr Pavel 85 %
Andrej Babiš 15 %
170 readers voted on this poll. Voting is open

The election has dominated the Czech news, with a particularly bitter campaign now underway ahead of the second round. Prime Minister Petr Fiala has portrayed the duel between Babiš and Pavel as a "battle of values." On the one hand, "there is populism, lies, and leaning towards Russia, and on the other hand, there is democracy, respect for the constitution, and a clear pro-Western orientation," Fiala says.

Many Czechs also see the presidential vote as an important statement of the country’s political views and vision for the future, even though the president does not wield broad executive power. Do expats agree, and do they think the outcome could make a difference to their lives in the country?

The left-right divide

Expats.cz asked foreigners from Bulgaria, Russia, Hungary, and the UK about their awareness of the choice facing the Czech people (names have been changed to protect privacy).

Maria, a Bulgarian author living in Prague, pointed out that expats tend to feel more connected to the politics of their home country than developments in Czechia, describing herself as “totally out of touch when it comes to Czech politics.”

Still, she thinks that in elections – wherever they take place – “conservative parties generally tend to be better, as they are based on traditional Christian values most of the time, and this is something that’s missing in the Western world nowadays.” She suggests that “too much frivolity leads to chaos, destruction, drama, and anger, which is something that far-left parties tend to lean towards.”

Kerry, a British IT professional, also points out an ideological divide, saying that “Pavel seems to be rather progressive, which might be a difficult sell for some here in Czechia. He also seems to be less well known in the political landscape, but he has had an impressive military career.”

Kerry also claims that “the elections seem pretty straightforward from the standpoint of Babiš requiring the presidential position to stay out of prison for alleged corruption and various illicit activities. I hope Pavel will win, but time will tell.”

Do expats care?

Nina, a Russian sales professional living in Prague, pointed out that as an expat, she can’t vote in the presidential elections. Without the ability to participate, she is “aware of the elections” but doesn’t feel personally involved in the outcome. For similar reasons, Tibor, a Hungarian photographer, said he “wasn’t really following this election,” although he is aware that “Babiš is back in the picture, which a lot of people aren’t happy about.”

Other expats take a more active interest despite their lack of personal participation. Andy, a British PR consultant, told Expats.cz that he “takes an interest, although ‘caring’ might be putting it too strongly,” pointing out that it would be “weird to be oblivious of the political scene in the country where you live.”

On the other hand, he said “it’s hard to see how Czechs’ choice of president would have any direct effect on the circumstances of an expat like me. I suspect that he or she would have some influence on the Czech Republic’s international stance, and that could be personally relevant.”

Andy also suggests that a hazy definition of the powers of the Czech president makes it hard for expats to take a strong stance. “My main difficulty is knowing exactly what the powers of the Czech president are, and this problem seems to be shared by most Czechs I have spoken to on the question,” he says.

What does the president actually do?

There is, indeed, some confusion about the scope of the president’s powers. According to the Czech constitution, these powers include: appointing a prime minister and other members of government; convening and dissolving sessions of parliament; appointing Constitutional Court justices; leaders of the Supreme Court and other judges; granting presidential pardons; approving or vetoing acts of parliament (the government can subsequently override the president’s veto), and appointing members of the banking council of the Czech National Bank (ČNB). 

The president is also tasked with representing Czechia on the international stage, and is the supreme commander of the Czech armed forces.

But the president’s ability to act on personal conviction remains a matter of debate. In one of the most controversial moments of the presidential campaign so far, Petr Pavel said he would consider refusing to approve candidates from parties such as the eurosceptic Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) as ministers, even if they formed part of a governing coalition after a general election. Some commentators described Pavel’s statement as a “dangerously authoritarian” interpretation of presidential powers.

And in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another question hanging over the election has been whether the president should be able to follow personal beliefs in diplomatic relations. The public is divided on whether the president should be internationally neutral, openly supportive of the West or the East, or merely reflecting the standpoint of the incumbent government, whatever that may be.

Who can vote?

Only Czech citizens can vote in the presidential elections, a factor that clearly plays a role in a lack of strong engagement among the expat community. The same is true for Czech general elections, although the more practical issues at stake tend to make expats feel a greater sense of personal involvement when Czechs elect their members of parliament every four years. 

But expats aren’t completely excluded from Czech democratic processes. EU citizens over the age of 18 from other countries have the right to vote in Czech municipal elections, provided they are residents of Czechia, and they can also vote in elections to the European Parliament. In this way, expats have the chance to play a small role in shaping the country’s political future.

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